When Did Intellectuals Stop Supporting The Free Market Of Ideas?

I just read the famous Ronald Coase 1974 essay on the free market of ideas. I was struck that this economist takes for granted that intellectuals support the free market of ideas.

When did this de facto intellectual support for the free market of ideas stop? I think it was after the rise of the internet when university intellectuals had the unpleasant experience of being critiqued by those they regarded as their inferiors? It’s a bit like the press being all for freedom for themselves but not for broadcasters. Intellectuals are all for their own freedom of expression, but not for the masses online. 

Another way of phrasing this turn is that as long as intellectuals were fighting their way to the top of the cultural high ground (against the establishment), they needed free speech. But once they arrived at the summit, free speech became something that created more danger for their status than protection.

When you don’t have power, it makes sense to ostensibly put your principles first so people know you’re not a threat to any group with power, you just believe in these abstract doctrines. When you do have power, it makes sense to put your interests first and rejigger your principles afterward if necessary.

It seems like the default position of elite intellectuals today is that we need more censorship.

I define an intellectual as one who makes his living from his ideas. This almost always requires subsidies. Almost nobody has ideas so compelling that they will provide a living on their own.

An academic tells me:

I was shocked about 1999 when I went to a meeting in [the] college of arts and science chairs. They were obsessing with the fact that the young Republicans had invited XYZ [Republican academic] for a talk. They were livid and strategizing on banning her from campus — even though they had zero authority to do any such thing.

That was an eye opener for me. People who should have defended freedom were violently against it. The internet vexes them more. But gives the people who control the major social media a lot of power to “curate.”

It happened in complicated ways. At first the humanities and social sciences were “against” traditional morality as conformism, religious, etc. when the establishment pretended to be attached to it, and maybe was. This even extended to science, where it was OK to be critical, and science too was against these things. With climate change, that changed for science, and people came to think that criticism was immoral and a result of corporate power. Also, as racism and sexism became the theme, anyone who questioned it was racist and sexist. Now it is transgenderism, homophobia, white supremacy, and so on. The sphere of acceptable speech shrinks, the moralism increases.

Here are some 2013 comments on EconLib.org:

* Nowadays, it seems like many of the people favoring regulation in the market for goods and services do in fact also favor more government regulation of ideas, e.g., campus speech codes and political campaign contribution and spending limits.

* The cynical explanation is that back when Coase was writing, people who wanted lots of government regulation in “economic” affairs felt that the good guys were in charge of that. However, their experience with “speech” regulation was that the bad guys were in charge of that. Prudes, “super-patriots,” anti-black racists, etc. In the world view of most educated people, the left regulated the market for goods and the right regulated the market for ideas.

Now that the good guys often have the power to suppress ideas they don’t like, many who want lots of government regulation are more consistent about applying it to speech also.

* Ann Althouse had an interesting post today about a Chinese law that criminalizes certain speech on the Internet and a Chinese blogger who made a public apology for things he had written. She has either read Coase’s piece or the ideas have made it to her corner of the University of Wisconsin Law School. Near the end:

“Notice the idea that writing on the internet is an addiction, a mental problem that ought to be disparaged. The blogger is an egotist, who pours out verbiage to further inflate his own grandiosity. This isn’t normal speech, but bad speech, and there’s so much of it that what once might have been thought of as a ‘marketplace of ideas’ is flooded with so much tainted merchandise that the government acts wisely to step in with consumer protection measures.”

* I think that you’ve missed Coase’s point in his 1974 AER article, “The Market for Goods and the Market for Ideas.” I find it incomprehensible that he would be a proponent of regulating speech. Indeed , he is quite caustic about the regulation of advertising. Rather, he is holding up to ridicule the shortcomings of regulation in the market for goods by showing how the free market for ideas functions without regulation. Thus, he is critiquing the failures of regulating the market for goods by comparison the groping, competitive approach to truth in the market for ideas. This can be seen in three separate aspects of his argument in the 1974 piece:
1. The comparison of the regulatory failures of goods regulation;
2. His quotation of Aaron Director that free speech is “the only area where laissez-faire is
still respectable.”
3. The distinction that free speech is protected by a contractual (social) imposition—the Bill of Rights—which was a key to the ratification of the Constitution—an agreement that conditioned several states’ ratification of the Constitution.

But the biggest giveaway is that Coase, the beneficiary of a classic English education, did not quote the strongest proponent of free speech, J.S. Mill (On Liberty). Mill argued that Truth is often unknowable, a priori, and that the best approximation to finding it emerges from free and open competition—a prescription for logical positivism. His argument is strengthened by Thomas Kuhn’s argument about systems of investigation and theory—that often the stronger argument is impeded by the success of the accepted truth or conventional wisdom. Rather, as you note, he quoted John Milton whose moronic assertion—for someone who’d just lived through the English Civil War—that “…who ever knew Truth put the worse in a free and open encounter.” Thus, the response to Milton’s question would include at least the following three examples for which much time and scientific advance, (sustained by free speech) were required:
• Ptolemaic earth-centric was able to predict the positions of the planets and stars by an adjustment that was not necessary for its successor, the Copernican helio-centric system;
• Darwin’s theory of evolution was impeded by religious arguments that were irrelevant to its explanations and hypotheses;
• Newtonian mechanics was shown to be an approximation to the more general structure of Einstein’s relativistic structure.

So, I think that Coase was using an implicit argument against regulation, specifically of the regulation of goods markets, not advocating it for the market for ideas.

I think that it is infeasible to separate the regulation of speech from their expression in the property rights of their ideas. An interesting example of this is entailed in a possible forthcoming appeal to the Supreme Court; the appeal addresses the convction for fraud by a publication of a result in a cancer cure that did not meet the standard 5% criterion (P-value). The scientist (published in a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine in January 2004) focused on sub-groups for which the protocol was effective (P%>5%), but selected from an overall experimental sample that did not achieve this; yet the sub-group/post experirmental selection was explicitly described in the published article. The proponent/chief scientist was prosecuted and convicted of fraud—he stood to gain from his ownership in a pharmaceutical company that owns the drug [The whole story is spun out in the Washington Post Health&Science section, Tuesday 24 September—David Brown, “The Jury Said Guilty, but What Did He Do?”].

This is an example illustrating that regulating speech—the law of fraud under which the scientist was convicted—also restricts ideas, the published experiments and reported results. I think that unlike physical property, where the bundle of rights can be sorted and some restricted—eg, zoning laws—that for ideas, the restriction of speech almost inevitably restricts the communication of the underlying ideas, thus impeding J.S. Mill’s process of competition—the groping for truth. Hence, such restriction is socially as well as economically inefficient.

BTW, in a perhaps unintentional irony, the lead article in today’s referenced Washington Post Health&Science section, is an article by a retired cardiologist whose brain tumor has been successfully treated by an experimental drug, not yet licensed—Fritz Anderson,” My Tumor, My Journey.”

Here are excerpts from Coase:

* the difference in view about the role of government in these two markets is really quite extraordinary and demands an explanation… The paradox is that government intervention which is so harmful in the one sphere becomes beneficial in the other. The paradox is made even more striking when we note that at the present time it is usually those who press most strongly for an extension of government regulation in other markets who are most anxious for a vigorous enforcement of the First Amendment prohibitions on government regulation in the market for ideas…

[Aaron] Director’s gentle nature does not allow him to do more than hint at it: “A superficial explanation for the preference for free speech among intellectuals runs in terms of vertical interests. Everyone tends to magnify the importance of his own occupation and to minimize that of his neighbor. Intellectuals are engaged in the pursuit of truth, while others are merely engaged in earning a livelihood. One follows a profession, usually a learned one, while the other follows a trade or a business.” I would put the point more bluntly. The market for ideas is the market in which the intellectual conducts his trade. The explanation of the paradox is self-interest and self-esteem. Self-esteem leads the intellectuals to magnify the importance of their own market. That others should be regulated seems natural, particularly as many of the intellectuals see themselves as doing the regulating. But self-interest combines with self-esteem to ensure that, while others are regulated, regulation should not apply to them. And so it is possible to live with these contradictory views about the role of government in these two markets.

That this is the main explanation for the dominance of the view that the market for ideas is sacrosanct is certainly supported if we examine the actions of the press. The press is, of course, the most stalwart defender of the doctrine of freedom of the press, an act of public service to the performance of which it has been led, as it were, by an invisible hand. If we examine the actions and views of the press, they are consistent in only one respect: they are always consistent with the self-interest of the press. Consider their argument that the press should not be forced to reveal the sources of its published material. This is termed a defense of the public’s right to know-which is interpreted to mean that the public has no right to know the source of material published by the press. To desire to know the source of a story is not idle curiosity. It is difficult to know how much credence to give to information or to check on its accuracy if one is ignorant of the source. The academic tradition, in which one discloses to the greatest extent possible the sources on which one relies and thus exposes them to the scrutiny of one’s colleagues, seems to me to be sound and an essential element in the search for truth. Of course, the counterargument of the press is not without validity. It is argued that some people would not express their opinions honestly if it became known that they really held these opinions. But this argument applies equally to all expressions of views, whether in government, business, or private life, where confidentiality is necessary for frankness. However, this consideration has commonly not deterred the press from revealing such confidences when it was in their interest to do so. Of course, it would also impede the flow of information to reveal the sources of the material published in cases in which the transmission of the information involved a breach of trust or even the stealing of documents. To accept material in such circumstances is not consistent with the high moral standards and scrupulous observance of the law which the press expects of others. It is hard for me to believe that the main thing wrong with the Watergate affair was that it was not organized by the New York Times.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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